Adam Foss wants to reinvent the cycle that defines the American criminal justice system. The former Boston-area prosecutor spent more than six years as an assistant district attorney, mostly working in the juvenile division. Prosecutors, he believes, play a pivotal role in our justice system — they wield the power to offer alternative sentencing and diversion programs for young people. According to Foss, prison isn’t always the answer. Globally, the U.S. incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country, with more than 2.2 million individuals currently behind bars. It's a phenomenon that affects blacks and Latinos at a vastly disproportionate rate than white offenders.
Out of this reality, Foss co-founded Prosecutor Integrity, a nonprofit in partnership with John Legend and Legend’s manager, Ty Stiklorius. The organization — still very much in the early stages of development — trains prosecutors around the country to view cases through a lens of cultural competency and compassion. Foss’s mission is simple: he wants to better train prosecutors about intervention, diversion, and rehabilitation programs.
Prosecutor Integrity and Legend’s #FreeAmerica campaign are part of a larger, growing movement among the creative community to tackle America’s mass incarceration epidemic. Of the millions of youth arrested each year, 95 percent are arrested for nonviolent crimes, including truancy, “criminal mischief” and other low level offenses. These are offenses that, all too often, land black and brown youth in court, stigmatizing minors with cases that aren’t worthy of a criminal record.
According to Foss, 36, a youthful mistake shouldn’t follow a young person for the rest of their life, stopping them from getting an education or landing a decent job. People between ages 18 and 24 make up only 10 percent of the nation’s population, but account for 30 percent of arrests and have the highest rate of rearrest.
Justice advocates have rallied behind Foss’s vision — he's even garnered support from Silicon Valley (Daniel Loeb, founder of hedge fund Third Point LLC, which Forbes estimates to be worth $2.6 billion, committed startup funds to Prosecutor Integrity). Still, Foss and his team are figuring out just how Prosecutor Integrity is going to work; so far it’s all been a whirlwind of iterating and “big picture” talks on stages with big thinkers. Now, though, the hard work begins. In an interview with The FADER, Foss explained why there’s a better way forward and mapped his vision for the role prosecutors should play in our criminal justice system.
What was your inspiration for starting Prosecutor Integrity?
Prosecutors are the most powerful decision makers in the criminal justice system. Our power is immense. I kept seeing the same issues in the courtroom with these young offenders — mental-health and drug issues, or a lack of education or social supports. That could have easily been me. I grew up in a rural, lower middle class town in Massachusetts. I was adopted as a baby from Bogotá, Columbia into a Boston Irish family and grew up as one of the only people of color in my town. During my internships in law school, I realized many of these kids just need help and rehabilitation and not incarceration in most cases.
Prosecutors have the ability to dismiss the case or think differently about sentencing — they just need the right training and tools. We’ve been prosecuting people the same way for years. I felt like everyone that came into that room, we needed to go several layers deep with. I worked with an assistant DA that once said to me, “Your job starts at 5 p.m.” He meant that the most important things we could be doing are outside of the courtroom. So I started working nights and weekends in the community, just learning. It was really frustrating to first see the trajectory of kids in the inner city, the complexities of it all. You take an adolescent and you lay on top of that trauma and poverty and all these things they aren’t even responsible for in the first place. It was so unfair. When you hear it every day, you get numb, desensitized. Especially when you’re not out in the community. The resources are out there. It’s just a matter of connecting them.
You’re very open about your own past mistakes and involvement with the criminal justice system. Can you shine some light on that?
In my late teens, I was caught with large quantity of drugs. Like any young teen male I made stupid mistakes. I wasn’t a bad kid but I got access to a bunch of weed and I thought there was an opportunity to make some money. I ended up with a gun in my face and that was the end. I decided to stop. One day, I went home and my plan was to go to a concert and sell joints at the concert and, you know, you make a ton of money doing that. The night before, my father — who was an auxiliary police officer — had moved my truck and he found a scale and a pipe. He told my mom. I was prepared for him to throw me out. He asked me about smoking marijuana and if I had any problems and I was like, “Oh this is going pretty well.” As the conversation is wrapping up he asked if I could estimate how much money I spent on the pot. One fundamental value of our family is that every dollar counts. My parents are both very blue collar. In that moment, my teenage mind was like, “Oh shit, I can tell him that I’ve been spending money, or that I’ve been running a business and making a lot of money.” So I chose to tell him the latter. That was really the last time I was at home. He took my money and that was it.
My personal experience with the criminal justice system showed me the other side. I have a criminal record but don’t really have a good memory of being prosecuted as a juvenile. I just remember nobody was really talking to me. I was kind of going through the motions.
“We have to teach people about the socioeconomics of poverty, and so far we failed across the board in that.” —Adam Foss
Where does this fit into the bigger conversation around Black Lives Matter, police brutality, and other matters of social justice occurring across country?
It’s not a coincidence that this conversation that the population of people affected by the criminal justice system are also the same people affected by poverty, poor public education, mental health care, and child welfare issues. It’s not because black and brown and poor people are biologically less capable of being at The Oscars or at some highbrow event. It’s because of implicit bias and fear and the fact that prosecutors don’t get the education they need to deal with a certain population of people. It’s not a comfortable conversation. But it’s necessary. We need to stop blaming people for our unconscious bias. Prosecutors have unconscious bias but they are not bad people. We have to teach people about the socioeconomics of poverty, and so far we failed across the board in that.
Technology plays a big role in your overall plan for Prosecutor Integrity — from data collection to social media — why is that important?
There has been no data collection in the traditional method of prosecuting. We collect zero data. There’s a lot of data about crime specifics, but DA offices don’t collect data about people that come through the system. We need that to analyze how we can do things differently. In five years, I want to go back to prosecuting. I don’t flaunt it on social media. This is not a celebrity movement. I still live in the same community where I was prosecuting.
What can young people — both those who have gone through the system and those who haven’t — do to raise awareness for this complex issue?
They need a seat at the table. With me and what we are building at Prosecutor Integrity, they have a seat at the table. In philanthropy, we’re always trying to solve other people’s problems for them. I want young people to know: unlike issues such as sentencing reform and prison conditions, the prosecutor is the direct line to the public. That shapes policy. Young people should use their activism to learn about prosecutors and vote. Jail functions as a receiver for a supply. There are 31,000 prosecutors going to work in this country and making decisions about other people’s lives — by an uninformed DA, and there’s no hashtag about that?